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Has the taste of wine changed much over the centuries?
Today, the taste of wine varies enormously from one country to another and from one region to another, because of the diversity of winegrowing regions throughout the world, as well as the preferences of consumers. A good wine for a German tends to be a dry white wine, for a Chinese, a red wine without too much acidity and for a Californian, a dark, tannic and strong wine. For the French, who are rather nationalistic, it’s a French wine, but for somebody from Bordeaux, it’s a Bordeaux wine, and for a Burgundian… it’s a Burgundy wine. People who produce few wines, such as the English, Belgians and Scandinavians, for example, have much more eclectic tastes.
Alongside this geographic diversity, the taste of wine has changed greatly over time due to developments in winemaking techniques, but also in fashions in taste and consumption habits. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, in order to keep them better, wines were enriched with a variety of additives: resin, seawater, gypsum, herbs and honey, etc. They were mainly drunk diluted with water, except amongst the barbarians, such as the long-haired Gauls, who liked getting drunk quickly. This habit of diluting wine continued until recent times. During the Middle Ages and the modern era, European wines were light clarets and were drunk within a year as no-one knew how to keep them for longer. From the 17th century onwards, at the instigation of the English and North Europeans, in Bordeaux and then throughout southern Europe, people learned how to make full-bodied red wines, mature them and then age them, thanks to the triple invention of the addition of protective sulphur, the thick black glass bottle and the cork. At the same time, the preservative benefits of fortifying wine (port, sherry, Madeira) and the fun aspect of adding bubbles (champagne) were discovered. Gradually, people began to drink pure wines and to vary them throughout the meal, seeking to match them with the dishes being served. This remains the ideal of the French gastronomic meal which has now been awarded UNESCO classification, but in many countries, people continue to drink wine either before or after the meal, but very little during it. As in other cultural fields, fashions are now changing very quickly. For example, in the last half-century the French have become great lovers of chilled rosé wine, evocative of the summer and holidays.
Jean-Robert Pitte, Member of the Institut Français du Goût, President of the Académie du Vin de France